The Law and Gospel of Atonement: A Process Lutheran View

We are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.

Ephesians 4:15-16

One fine afternoon, after commuting an hour or so home from work, I found myself reading some theology of the Finnish Lutheran variety. It had much to do with the Unio Christi, and I was engaged in that most Lutheran activity of simultaneously indulging in this fine theology while evacuating my bowels. If, at least according to one of the legends, Luther had his great gospel insight into justification while pooping in the tower, why couldn’t I do something similar? I’ve been to that tower; my bathroom is much more commodious, more conducive to letting the good thoughts flow.

And so they did.

The Finnish Lutherans have made an excellent case, through Luther’s own writings, that there is a distinction between grace and gift in Luther’s thinking on justification. This distinction comes to Luther via Romans 5:15. God’s grace or favor is simply God’s positive disposition toward a person, regardless and in spite of the sins of that person. This is most closely associated with the forensic aspect of justification—God’s declaration that a person is righteous.

The gift is the other part of the equation. Specifically, the gift is that of righteousness. God gives righteousness to the person that God favors, and so that person will become righteous, or even deified. Neither of these aspects comes from God in an abstract way. Both are aspects of a greater reality, namely, Union with Christ. The sending of Christ to a person is grace or favor from God. The work that Christ does in being sent to that person is gift. Christ works righteousness in the person who has faith in him. The person and work of Christ cannot be separated, even if they can be distinguished.

I am inspired by this distinction as I think about Atonement and what exactly it is. I believe that Atonement is Union with Christ as that union realizes the distinction between grace and gift for each individual person.

In a previous essay, entitled Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment, I mustered an argument against the Penal Substitutionary Theory of Atonement. I remain in substantial agreement with that essay, and I rely on it to fill in the gaps that any reader might have for this essay, which I hope will be able to stand on its own legs regardless. More can always be said, though, and for a helpful bit of more I refer readers to the above-mentioned essay.

For the purposes of this essay, it is essential to bear in mind the fact that God does not require one human to pay for the sins of another. In fact, God believes this to be unjust (cf. Ezek. 18, especially 18:1-4, 32). Neither can one person legally ransom another person from death (Psalm 49:7). Jesus was/is a human, and so Jesus is included in this. Atonement theories that use either or both of these concepts and attribute them to Jesus’s death on the cross are neither canonically nor morally attuned. Even Luther himself could veer in this direction, though he need not be interpreted in that way. The fröhliche Wechseln, the joyous exchange, can be interpreted in a way that disallows these blatantly unbiblical ideas.

Paul Althaus makes this clear, as he searches through Luther’s thinking. Althaus maintains that, “No one can, in the strict sense of the word, help another in God’s judgment—either through substitutionary achievement or through meritorious intercession. (For God deals with each man by himself and no one can believe or obey or die for another. Insofar as we can speak of vicarious or substitutionary activity, we can never do that but we can only help the faith and life of the man for whom we intercede.)”[1]

He then quotes Luther in a footnote: “I do not ask that God would give you my faith or my works but that he would give you your own faith and your own works so that Christ may be able to give you all of his works and salvation through your faith just as he has given them to us through faith.”

And again: “See to it that no one proposes to be saved through someone else’s faith or works; indeed you cannot be saved through the work and faith of Mary or Christ, unless you have your own faith, for God does not permit Mary or Christ himself to take your place and to make you faithful and righteous, unless you yourself are faithful and believing.”[2]

In these sentiments, there lies embedded another notion that is closely attached to them. True forgiveness requires that the injured party is the one who does the forgiving. You cannot forgive yourself for a sin you committed against another person, as if that forgiveness were from the offended person. Likewise, you cannot offer forgiveness on behalf of another person.

For instance, if Johnny slapped Tommy, then Elizabeth could not just up and forgive Johnny for that act, not without Tommy’s expressed consent, which is to say his forgiveness. Elizabeth could be the bearer of the message of forgiveness, but it would simply be Elizabeth relaying Tommy’s act of forgiveness. It would not be Elizabeth forgiving Johnny.

Luther explains it this way: “No one can fulfill God’s law for someone else; each one has to fulfill it for himself…That is why the commandment says: You, you, you, ought to love. It does not say you should let someone else love in your place. For although we can and should pray for one another that God should be gracious and help, no one will be saved unless he has fulfilled God’s commandment for himself. Therefore we should pray not that God would permit someone else to go unpunished, as those rascals who sell indulgences pretend, but that he would become godly and keep God’s commandment.”[3]

I mean to claim in all of this that not even God can forgive one person on behalf of another person. As I say this, it immediately prompts the question: How does God forgive, then? It seems clear that God forgives. And the Pharisees, at least, believed that “God alone” can forgive sins (Mark 2:7). How can there even be an Atonement? How does it work? To answer these questions, we will have to take a quick foray into one salient aspect of Process Theology.

The aspect of Process Theology that we need to zero in on has to do with God’s ability to feel. In classical theology, God is understood as unable to feel. This is the doctrine of impassibility. In much modern theology, however, it is understood that God can feel, that God can suffer and can therefore undergo this type of relational change. Process Theology does much to argue in this direction and goes further. It argues that God feels every pain of every existing conscious being, in precisely the same amount as that being, almost as if God were that being. According to Process Theology, God indeed is a structural part of everything that exists.

I won’t repeat those arguments here. I will simply assert that God suffers and feels deeply the pains and joys of every conscious being. If the reader wishes to hear the arguments that bear this assertion out, s/he may read Alfred North Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, and Thomas Jay Oord, et al.

As I assert that God can feel, it becomes necessary to realize that every sin or other harmful act that one conscious being makes against another is thereby deeply felt by God. It pains God, at least as much as—if not more than—it pains that conscious being. Every sin that is committed is committed against God in precisely this painful way.

As we begin to understand this, we can start to see that when God forgave sins on the cross, he was forgiving sins against Godself, every sin that God actually suffered. The sin of Johnny slapping Tommy would be a sin that God would feel. God would have felt the pain of that slap, and God forgave that slap anyway. God did not forgive what Tommy felt; God only forgave what God felt through Tommy. But it was precisely the same amount of pain. God has forgiven all sins against God.

Romans 3 teaches us that Jesus came as a demonstration or manifestation or proof or evidence (endeixin) that God is merciful. God portrayed Jesus publicly as a mercy seat (hilasterion) in order to demonstrate God’s righteousness (Rom. 3:25). God has not demanded full justice on his behalf. The righteousness that appears (Rom. 3:21), the righteousness that Jesus demonstrates (Rom. 3:25-26), comes apart from the Law (Rom. 3:21). It is a gift! We simply need to believe, to have faith, (Rom. 3:22), and we are thereby in full communion with God’s forgiveness of our sins against God. For every pain that I’ve caused God, I am forgiven by God. God is for us (Rom. 8:31)!

This, so far, reveals the aspect of grace or favor as we find it in Union with Christ.

“Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law” (Rom. 3:31).

Remember: God did not forgive the pain of what Johnny made Tommy feel; God could only be merciful on God’s behalf with what God felt. Johnny still owes Tommy an apology; Johnny still needs to repent. If Johnny doesn’t repent, if Tommy doesn’t forgive, there will in point of fact be a relational rift between the two. Reconciliation, Atonement, will not be realized. In this interpersonal way, the Law is still upheld. There are still consequences for our actions.

Humans must reconcile with one another. If someone commits a murder, they still have to go to jail even though God forgives them. The murderer must truly repent and the one murdered must forgive, if there is ever to be true reconciliation, true salvation…if God is ever to truly and finally be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28). This is the hard truth of the Law: Full salvation does not occur until everyone has mercy as God has mercy, until everyone loves as God loves.

But this difficult truth can only drive us back to the full Gospel. God poses the great Not Yet of the future, where all things will work together for good (Rom. 8:28). Not even death can separate us from the love of God as it is demonstrated in Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:37-39). God has certainly shown all of us, through the Law, that we have been disobedient; but the Gospel shows us that God will have mercy on all (Rom. 11:30-36). The mystery has been revealed, all things in heaven and on earth will be summed up in Christ (Eph. 1:9-10).

Considering this, we can have faith that God will lead all to repentance and reconciliation. This, too, show’s God’s grace, even through the Law. When Tommy realizes, whether now or in the afterlife, that God was able to forgive Johnny for the precise pain that Tommy felt, then Tommy—the injured party—will see that he has the glorious power to forgive as well when he is united with Christ.

And Tommy will further realize that he has been no saint, that he has caused God and other people pain as well. He needs forgiveness, and this realization, with the empowering presence of Christ and the Holy Spirit will move him to repent. This will happen billions of times over for billions of people, and everyone will eventually be in a right relationship with everyone else. God will not stop until this work is done, until God is all in all. This, then, reveals the aspect of gift as it comes in Union with Christ. We will be made righteous, though only through faith.

This is not a robotic determinism. It is the Gospel that produces this faith, this trust, that God will carry us and finish the work. It does not coerce; it only persuades by gradually showing each person what reality actually is.

All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.

So, the Gospel is both present and future, already and not yet. We are completely forgiven of our sins against God right now. God is for us! And God promises to bring all things to completion by working in everyone to realize the forgiveness they need and have in Christ.

We must all become the love that God is in Christ. And we will through Union with Christ! May God send us more Elizabeths to preach this to us!

[1] Althaus, Paul. The Theology of Martin Luther. (pp. 300-301). Fortress Press: Philadelphia, 1966.

[2] Ibid., p. 301

[3] Ibid., p. 301

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